Tuesday, February 24, 2015

bloody brilliant

The best basketball in the world isn't played in the NBA Finals, or the Olympics, or twenty minutes before One Shining Moment.  It's low-major conference championships.  Think MAAC, NEC, Atlantic Sun.  It's played in college gyms that are actually gyms and not a lot bigger than high school ones, and by players whose professional basketball future is in, like, Belgium, at best.  It's not nearly as skilled as what you see on the red carpets in Lexington or Chapel Hill or Lawrence.  It can be a brickfest.  It might be a foulfest.  But nobody, anywhere, plays harder than a guy in his senior year shooting for his one and only NCAA tournament bid.  Something about the difference between getting to play on the biggest stage and be kings for a week with the chance, however miniscule, to be the toast of the world for slaying Goliath..... and walking off the court and leaving your basketball career behind forever.  It really motivates.  Fans scream their asses off, coaches coach their asses off, and best of all, players really, really play their asses off.

There was a little bit of that going on Sunday night.  No, it's not quite the same in a basketball palace like the JPJ, during the regular season, when the reward is just another step toward the not-entirely-necessary honor of a #1 seed in the conference tourney.  But still.

But still, indeed.  Maybe it says something about this team that they're digging that deep even without that much on the line.  I mentioned a line from an ESPN column about a month ago that said this is a team that likes its games to be rock fights.  I (still) don't care what Myron Medcalf says, it's impressive and it's damn good entertainment to see some of the team looking like they were in a literal rock fight and the rest of them decide it's not going to stop them.

These Florida State games have all been kinda like that, come to think of it.  It's the second year in a row that a UVA guard has gotten concussed in the middle of one.**  Leonard Hamilton's teams rarely seem to let you off easy.  I know there's hand-wringing over the offense, and it's not all unjustified, but most of our games against FSU end up with both teams at less than a point-per-possession.  FSU makes you earn it.  And they're bigger and longer than the Hoos, which makes the performance in the paint that much more impressive.

**The school's evening press release said Perrantes suffered a mild concussion.  I'm thinking it's either really mild considering they let a concussed guy back out on the bench in uniform in front of bright lights and a raucous crowd.... or else that's a really bad idea.  Or both.

-- Evan Nolte is suffering from Sammy Zeglinski Syndrome, which means he can't shoot a lick right now and that means the fans are in his grill for being useless.  All I know is he's the guy Tony Bennett has chosen to start the game in Justin Anderson's stead, and he's the guy getting the crunch time minutes.  Which means he's doing something right.

-- Perrantes is important - huge, even - for the long term, but he actually wasn't having much of an impact last night.  I'll quantify exactly what his loss meant: three points, which is the bucket that FSU scored when Perrantes's man found himself wide open as a result of his defender laying on the deck with blood gushing out of a brand-new orifice.  UVA wasn't getting squat from the perimeter all day anyway, and losing their point guard made the offense less about open shots and screens and passes and coachy stuff and more about forcing the ball to the bigs and just letting them do posty stuff.

-- We're not the only ones staring down the barrel of the attrition gun, after Chris Jones's dismissal from Louisville for threatening his girlfriend.  It's likely to be a big problem for the Cards.  Almost all their scoring - 80% of it - came from a big four of Jones, Wayne Blackshear, Montrezl Harrell, and Terry Rozier.  Jones was 3rd of 4 in that group, and the starting point guard.  Their first game without him (besides his original suspension) was last night in Atlanta, and Louisville barely squeezed past GT.  They're almost dead-certain to be the loser in the five-team derby for four double-byes, and could even find themselves leapfrogged by a few teams like Pitt and NC State, who are two losses back but have way easier schedules.

-- Rutgers is a pretty bad lacrosse team, so beating them by nine goals is nice but nothing to get over-hyped about, even with a very nice performance by Matt Barrett in net.  We'll see how the ACC schedule goes.  But they do have a very good faceoff man in Joe Nardella, who won 63% of his faceoffs last year and only 9 of 19 against the Hoos.  I'm duly impressed.  And it was Jason Murphy, who had a lousy season opener, who did most of the best work, winning 8 of 11.  Chalk up to fortunate clash of styles, or genuine optimism for the future?  Well, Syracuse is next, with Ben Williams winning 47 of 67 so far this year.  We'll find out.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

casual fans HATE him

Learn How This One Weird Trick, Invented By A Dad, Ruined College Basketball Forever!!

Myron Medcalf apparently never learned not to poke a bees' nest.  Mark Titus had it right about UVA fans, even if "emotionally fragile" isn't quite the turn of phrase I'd've used.  UVA is a school with just enough success to make its fans think it should have a hell of a lot more, and greatly fear losing what we have.  We react, I think, more favorably than most fanbases to favorable opinions, and launch more heat-seeking missiles than most fanbases at those perceived to be haterz, whether or not the haterism was the result of malice or negligence.  I don't even remember which ESPN writer it was, but when he left Mike Scott off his Wooden Award list, he felt the Twitter wrath so strongly that he felt compelled to jokingly warn another writer (who made the same mistake) that the Mongol hordes would soon descend.

I enjoy this reputation, to be honest.  It speaks to a passionate fanbase - one which is absolutely overjoyed to have something worth being passionate about, and sometimes aims that passion in interesting directions.  So when guys like Myron Medcalf write articles entitled, "Is UVA's style bad for the game?" (and make no mistake, he wasn't actually asking) it's like chumming for sharks.

I don't know which fallacy to start with in Medcalf's article, so I think I'll start by pointing out that it wasn't just UVA fans blowing up the joint.  David Teel let him have it, albeit without actually mentioning him by name.  It was worth every word.  Kentucky fans did too.  The comment section is loaded with people from non-UVA schools saying how stupid this is.  My favorite was from a guy Facebook-identifying with Boston University who bought tickets to UVA at Boston College because he wanted to see UVA's defense in action.  Keep in mind: BU and BC is to hockey what UNC and Duke is to basketball.  This is sort of like if you, the Virginia fan living in DC, actually paid money to the University of Maryland just because you wanted to see Tom Izzo.  This is the "casual fan" that Medcalf thinks hates UVA.

Medcalf wrote his column after, and cited, the Pitt game, which ended 61-49.  A slow-paced score.  BOOORRRINNNG.  UVA is about seven possessions a game short of the national median for tempo; we average 58 possessions a game, while the median is 65.  Seven more possessions means that game would've finished, oh, about 68-55.  WOW SO EXCITING!!!

Let's leave aside the fact that Medcalf essentially said that sound defense and good fundamentals are bad for the game.  Even on his terms, the fact is, UVA's system is good for the game, not bad.  Inarguably, indisputably so.  What Tony Bennett is doing is a boon for the sport - and for the so-called casual fan.

-- It keeps the variety in the game.  Listen, the Venn diagram of college basketball fans and NBA fans has a smaller intersection than you think.  NBA fans go in for the soap operas and the transcendent athletes.  College fans appreciate the variety of styles.  If there are differing styles between NBA teams, they're lost on all but the most serious students of the game - and most of those students are studying college ball instead.  One reason Kentucky fans think the Medcalf piece was dumb is because they'd love to get a piece of UVA.  Really.  And for much the same reason as we would love to play them.  That particular clash of styles is an irresistable attraction.  Both fanbases want to win this year's championship, but both fanbases would love, along the way, to prove their team's style is superior as well.

-- It keeps games closer, and closer games are shockingly more interesting to the "casual fan."  Actually, I think this is a bit overblown, but announcers harp on it every time a team hangs close with UVA.  Fewer possessions, less opportunity to break open the game, and so on.  There's a kernel of truth to it, but there's also this: if the so-called casual fan keeps hearing these announcers blather about it, he's likely to think, "this might be a good chance to see an upset."

-- It occasionally produces circus-freak scores.  Like 76-27 or 45-26.  That certainly draws attention, yes?   It is possible to say with a straight face that this team might one day finish a first half with a goose egg on the other team's scoreboard.  I find it hard to believe that wouldn't interest anyone.

-- Finally - and this is absolutely the crux of the argument right here - that "casual fan" that Medcalf thinks dominates the game's fanbase?  The one that "cares about entertainment," where "entertainment" means running and scoring?  You know the type.

It's a unicorn.  It doesn't exist.  Medcalf wrote a whole article about his own imagination.

There is such a thing as the "casual fan," yes.  That person is a fan of a team, not a sport.  (Or they're a fan of an event, specifically the NCAA tournament.)  Medcalf thinks Joe Schmo, the "gamblers, bus drivers, CEOs, and salesmen" in his article, will be sitting in their living rooms going, "hmm, I wonder who's playing college basketball tonight" in much the same way they peruse Netflix for a movie to pass the time.  They don't.  People who are fans of college basketball have a team and they watch that team.  The more casual they are, the less likely they are to watch or care about Random Monday Night Game, not more.  Duh!  (And, obviously, the more casual they are, the less likely they are to notice the difference between Game A and Game B where Game A has eight more possessions than Game B.  As well, the more casual they are, the less likely they are to know which team plays what style of ball.  Duh, again.)  It's the serious fans - you know, the ones that like college basketball pretty much the way it is, that watch random games for entertainment.

The real casual fans, not the ones that exist in Myron Medcalf's head, are interested in seeing their team do well.  That team is not likely to be Kentucky or Duke or Kansas.  There are 351 teams in the country, of which maybe eight are considered royalty of the game.  Chances are extremely good that their team isn't one of them.  Tony Bennett gives them hope.  Because Tony Bennett is proving you can be elite without recruiting Burger Boys, as long as you have a system.  If college ball encourages running and hyper-scoring, it means the only way to succeed is with elite athletes, and the only schools that can recruit elite athletes are the royalty.  Fans of UVA and Wisconsin and Baylor and Utah and Wichita State and Iowa State (and so on and so forth) want to know their team has a shot at hanging a banner.  If college ball listens to the Myron Medcalfs of the world, and NBA-ifies the game, the Final Four will be four of the same eight teams, every year.

Nobody wants that.  Any drooling idiot can see that the thing that makes the NCAA tournament interesting to the "casual fan" (the one from above that's a fan of the event) is Cinderella.  Hell, Cinderella is probably one of the major forces that has helped keep the NCAA together.**  That's the one thing the "casual fan" likes above everything else.

One could go the cynical route and suggest that Medcalf is fronting for his employer, an employer which holds a vested interest in TV ratings.  ESPN isn't a neutral observer; they want games to be as interesting as possible.  Maybe Medcalf is just mouthpiecing the results of some focus group that got latched onto by the C-suite at Disney.  I say, never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.  Hanlon's razor.  Medcalf wrote something dumb because it'd been percolating in his head for a while now, and he's surrounded by groupthink in his media bubble.  As we've seen, actual college basketball fanhood reacted to it as they should've.

**The Power 5 conferences might have made a stronger move to break away, if the NCAA tournament weren't such a money machine, and it's a money machine because Lehigh over Duke.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

electricity shortage

Three games down without our Wooden candidate, three wins.  Not real pretty wins.  Kind of scrappy ones against teams probably not going to the tournament.  But, wins.

I'd say it's still unanswered, to what extent this team misses Justin Anderson.  There's no doubt they need him back.  But would those games still have been close and scruffy without him?  Anderson's absence isn't the reason the three-point shooters missed a whole bunch of open looks.  In the NC State and Wake games, they went 4-for-23, which is 17%.  It's not like they missed because Anderson wasn't on the floor, and it's small coincidence that the Pitt game had a more comfortable margin of victory and the Hoos shot 5-for-13, which is a very acceptable 38.5%.

On the other hand, would Anderson have had a better chance of hitting?  Or would the shot have been a more makeable one, a layup perhaps, if Anderson was in the game?  That'll never be answered.

The two Louisville games are exactly four weeks apart, so if Simba's a really fast healer, he'll be back for the second one.  Maybe it's the nagging paranoid in me, because that part of you never really goes away if you root for UVA, but the rest of the schedule seems booby-trapped.  FSU is actually the least of our concerns, I think.  Wake will get us at their place and no doubt they'll be awfully confident, seein's how they just almost beat us at ours.  VT is gonna be primed as well, though fortunately that's at home.  Syracuse is no easy place to win at.  And it was after Anderson went down that Louisville mounted a comeback; that one's a return road visit too.

At stake, besides tournament seeding and the chance to add a regular season title to the rafters, is avoiding bracketologist talk about whether UVA can be as legit as ever without Anderson.  The committee does take injuries into account, both positively and negatively.  If a guy misses time and then comes back, your losses during that time get a kinder eye.  If a guy won't be ready for the tournament, they penalize you.  Optimistically, I think Anderson will be back for the NCAAs, but you never know.  But if the winning streak continues, sans the team's most electric player, you can't ask for a better setup.

**************************************************

-- With about 47 seconds left, NC State fouled Brogdon; this was the very best of all possible outcomes.  Coaches aren't big on quick shots to try and get two-for-one on possessions at the end of a half (though this is a strategy mainly for the end of the first half; the second is too wild-cardy) so UVA was going to hold the ball as long as possible.  One likely outcome of that strategy is to not score and give NC State the chance to tie with a minimum of 12 seconds to work with.  Instead, UVA's best free-throw shooter got to head to the line with a chance to put UVA up two scores, and the Hoos were guaranteed another possession.

-- The announcers had this fixation on "free throw percentage in conference play."  I guess that's useful as a proxy for how you're shooting lately, but it's otherwise utterly nonsensical - it's not like you need to adjust free-throw shooting percentages for the quality of opponent.

-- How about Evan Nolte's drive and dish to Gill?  As with the Anderson miss against Duke, it felt like a game-turning play.  I think it's because Nolte is usually a bit less than assertive on offense, and is the player on the team who least resembles a smooth rim-driving point guard (and yes that includes Mike Tobey) so the sight of his bad-Hawaiian-shirt-wearing self making like Isiah Thomas was jarring enough to turn the game on its head.  And as it turned out, that was the last lead change of the game.

-- Center-court logos are trending in the obnoxiously huge direction, and never more so at NC State.  I know it's a classic old logo and all, but it is in fact the ugliest friggin' court in the whole country.  And since the whole midcourt line is almost completely obscured, it ought to be banned.

-- In case you've forgotten why everyone thinks Carolina media is the most shameless, shilling, and biased bunch of wretches in the whole country, enjoy this small passage from Stephen Schramm from the Fayetteville Observer:
The replays showed that Nolte had collided with N.C. State’s Caleb Martin. Much to Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried’s dismay, the crew decided to call a flagrant foul on Martin.
Yeah, totally out of nowhere, I'm sure.  Much to Stephen Schramm's dismay, the cops decide he's at fault when a tree collides with his car.  The definition of a flagrant foul is "excessive and/or unnecessary contact" and plowing Nolte clearly qualifies.

-- Shifting gears to the Wake game: Last week I wrote about rewarding the big guy making the hustle play, and this week it happened again: Darion Atkins brick-walled a Wake defender trying to keep up with London Perrantes, and was rewarded by Perrantes with an easy layup.  The announcers did a nice job of pointing out the communication between Atkins and Perrantes on that play.

-- It's interesting that Tony didn't make an adjustment - or didn't appear to, anyway, though you never know what you miss - as Schnozz Mitoglou kept pounding away from the three-point line off of a simple pick-and-pop.  I think it's a philosophy thing - a gamble that a freshman on the road is less likely to keep making those than the ballhandler is to punish you for getting away from your hard hedge.

-- Malcolm's dunk.  MALCOLM'S.  DUNK.

-- As badly as Pitt and Wake shot free throws, I can't help but wonder if the students haven't figured out a distraction routine that actually works.

-- Much like with the Notre Dame game last year, the Hoos did a nice job of finding a tendency in the Pitt zone and attacking the bejeezus out of it.  And on one play, a different attack, but a really, really nice job by Isaiah Wilkins to set up an open shot.  Whether on purpose or just playing through the flow of the game, I don't know, but Wilkins did a great job of holding the ball just long enough to suck in the defense and then kick it back to the point, where Perrantes wasted no time finding the open shooter.  Pity Nolte missed the shot, but it was picture-perfect passing.

-- Does anyone else besides me think that Infiniti commercial is incredibly stupid?  Do people routinely make a habit of just blithely backing out the driveway and missing the BIG FKIN' YELLOW SCHOOL BUS rumbling down the road?  Are school buses difficult to see?  Is it hard to see a car coming down the totally empty parking lot lane?  The look on school bus lady's face is priceless: "Oh wow, if it hadn't been for those genius engineers at Infiniti, I would've gotten my two children messily killed in a school bus accident!"  Don't worry, honey: with observation skills like those, Junior and Juniorette will have their own permanent 6 x 3 plot any day now.

Probably like 1/3 of commercials on TV say the same thing: "Our customers are idiots.  If you're an idiot, you can be one of our customers too."

-- With the win over Pitt, UVA mathematically clinches a single bye in the ACC tournament, more than three weeks before it starts.

-- Yes, I read Myron Medcalf's moronic scribblings, and there's enough to say about that that it's worth a post all its own.  Wednesday night.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

lacrosse season preview 2015

The damn season begins earlier and earlier all the time, it seems like.  As teams invest more in the sport, they want to play more games, and since there's a hard-and-fast ending on Memorial Day, the only way to expand the season is further into the winter.  Thus (combined with laziness), I have to cheat a bit on the season preview and write it after a game has already happened.

Lately, it seems like the season previews for lacrosse have had a "rebuilding" theme, which means the first rebuild or two didn't take.  Not much changes this year; the team has only six seniors and six juniors listed on a roster of forty.  Circumstances have conspired to thin out the upperclass ranks considerably, and the situation on defense would have me running around in panicked screams if there weren't already one win against a quality team to calm me down a bit.  Take the offensive line situation in football, remove half the linemen at random, and make them all freshmen, and you get the idea.  But they did a passable job against Loyola, so we can put off the panicking for a bit.

Let's start this with the bad news sections just so we can finish on a plus note.

GOALIE

Starter: #9 Matt Barrett

The last time we could feel remotely confident about goalie play was 2012.  Going into the third season since Rob Fortunato graduated, there's still not much to feel great about.  At least this will be the first season since 2011 that the starter is the same as last year.  Barrett, a sophomore, stabilized the position last year after a very tumutuous 2013, but only with a very loose definition of stability.  Barrett was wildly inconsistent and occasionally jumpy, trying too hard to make a save when less movement would've been needed.

He did get better as the season went on, lending some hope that this year will be an improvement.  It might be hard to tell, though, given the state of the defense.  Barrett could play a lot better and the stat sheet still might not show it.  But he's the guy; junior Dan Marino had his shot and lost it, and the only other option on the roster is freshman Will Railey.  The position is thin and nobody inspires a ton of confidence.  And yet, this is one of the most experienced positions this side of the field.  Yikes.

DEFENSE

Starters: #13 Davi Sacco, #25 Scott Hooper, #44 Logan Greco

That's who started the Loyola game, at any rate.  I'd say if that stays the same all season, then it's a pleasant surprise.  This was a position that wasn't in bad shape at all last year, and this year looked fairly promising last summer.  Then the position was carpet-bombed with attrition.

Greg Danseglio got things started by transferring to Maryland.  About a month ago, Nate Menninger had hip surgery.  Tanner Scales tore his Achilles tendon early in February.  That was....pretty much your three likely starters right there, and all of them upperclassmen.  Menninger acquitted himself well on the wings during faceoffs last year and is versatile enough to play either D or LSM.  Scales was the ACC Freshman of the Year in 2013 and well on his way to being an anchor on defense.

Now you've got two true freshmen - Hooper and Greco - and a smallish senior who's played in eight games in three years.  UVA also played the 6'4" Cooper Fersen - also a true freshman - for essentially a four-man rotation on defense.  Regardless of how well regarded they all were coming out of high school - and they were UVA recruits, so that's not in doubt - it's the shakiest, most uncertain situation at defense in probably forever.  This group has to gel and grow up in a real... big.... hurry.  On the plus side, if they play passably well, it bodes extremely well for future seasons, particularly, say, 2017, when those three freshmen would be juniors and Scales, a fifth-year senior.

LSM

Starter: #23 Tanner Ottenbreit

This is the one position on defense that owns both stability and genuine promise.  Ottenbreit has been a fixture at LSM the past two years.  No questions about his talents.  Sophomore Michael Howard has a lot of positive talk swirling around him as well, though he only got into three games last year, and should be able to spend this season rotating in and apprenticing for the front lines next year.  There may be the luxury of occasionally moving one of these guys to close-in defense, depending on matchups.

SSDM

Starters: #2 Carlson Milikin, #15 Will McNamara

Another position that got slammed, although this was entirely expected as most of the players manning this position last year were seniors.  It's also the toughest position to keep track of, because so often an offensive player gets stuck on defense, or simply told to play defense (Ryan Tucker being a prime example) and there's always a lot of rotation.

Milikin got into 12 games last year as a redshirt freshman, which was quite an accomplishment given the incredible upperclassman depth here last year.  It's fair to expect he'll do well.  McNamara is also intriguing.  Entering UVA for the 2013 season, he was a tremendously hyped-up recruit, one of the country's elite - and then redshirted the season.  He wasn't even enrolled in school last year.  Now he's been shifted from offense to defense, where his athleticism will be an asset to a unit in need of shoring up.

FACEOFFS

Starter: #19 Jeff Kratky

Yet another incidence of attrition, with Mick Parks not listed on the roster and rumors of a serious knee injury being the reason.  Faceoffs have been a UVA boogeyman since oh about forever, and Parks was, if not exactly a star, at least steady and could hold his own most of the time.

Kratky is a sophomore who took 42 faceoffs last year - on average about 2.5 per game - and barely scraped a 30% win rate.  Against Loyola he was still a touch under 50%.  Also taking faceoffs against Loyola - 12 of the 28 in the game - was freshman Jason Murphy, but if he keeps up his 2-of-12 pace much longer it'll be all Kratky plus a long line of tryouts.

OFFENSIVE MIDFIELD

Starters: #1 Greg Coholan, #3 Ryan Tucker, #36 Zed Williams

Now the fun part.  If this is to be a good season, the offense has to score a hell of a lot.  Looks very much like they could be up to the task.  To start with, the midfield blew up against Loyola, scoring 9 of UVA's 13 goals.  Tucker is a well-known quantity by now: one of the country's most dangerous complementary scorers.  His shot is not only famously cannonesque, it's very accurate - he needed just 59 shots to score 24 goals last season.  Coholan was only the #91 recruit in the country when he came in, but he made a big impression right away, started all 16 games last year as a sophomore and had a 27-point season, and if his four goals against Loyola are any indication, he's set to become one of the ACC's scoring leaders.

Then there's Zed Williams.  Immense hype followed him into his freshman season last year, but it took him almost a month to get off the schneid and score his first goal.  We saw some flashes of the player he was pumped up to be, but nothing more, and he finished with six goals and nine assists.  This year he had a first-line spot all ready for him, and he sure as hell didn't disappoint.  Five points in the game represents a third of his full-year production last year.

This is a fun first-line combo: one unhyped surprise, one mega-touted recruit, and one really good steady glue guy.  The second line is intriguing too, consisting of Tyler German, A.J. Fish, and Matt Emery (Rob's brother.)  German was a FOGO guy his sophomore year, then shifted to the offense last year and acquitted himself well, with 12 goals.  Fish (along with attackman Joe French) got a lot of preseason praise from Dom Starsia last year, but not a lot of playing time; he'll get a more regular role this year.  And of these three, it was Emery who had the second unit's lone goal against Loyola.  It's pretty rare, if ever, that UVA doesn't have a deadly midfield unit, and this year looks like no exception to the rule.

ATTACK

Starters: #5 Ryan Lukacovic, #14 Owen Van Arsdale, #32 James Pannell

For a while now, fans have been pleading for Van Arsdale not to be put behind the net.  My voice has been among them; OVA is a slow decision-maker, and for that matter has one of the most stoppable shots in the ACC.  His main asset is escapability, making him a better candidate to play in front of the net than behind it.  Last year, there was finally a viable alternate to point to: Lukacovic.

Dom's noticed too, because in a preseason interview he mentioned giving Lukacovic the chance to quarterback the offense.  Lukacovic came off the bench most of last season, but played more than often enough to look like a very efficient operator of the offense.  The Loyola game might just be the first vindication of this viewpoint, as he registered two goals and two assists.

Pannell was the real star of the show last year, proving himself an elite finisher alongside Mark Cockerton, with 39 goals in his redshirt freshman season.  So of course he'd be the one offensive starter going scoreless against Loyola.  I'm not worried.  Pannell is legit.  And if the midfield keeps blowing up the way they did, someone somewhere is gonna try moving an extra long stick out there and the attackmen will make them wish they hadn't.

First off the bench this year is the aforementioned Joe French, who, like Fish, got praised and then buried by Dom.  And like Fish, it's just that he had to be a little bit patient.  French is extremely unlikely to dislodge any of the three starters, but could easily score in the neighborhood of 12-15 goals and be ready to move on up when OVA graduates after this year.

*******************************************

The story is simple.  The offense is up to snuff.  It's not the incredible unstoppable powerhouse of, say, 2006, but I expect it to be improved over last year, and it wasn't exactly bad last year.  The defense....hmm.  Huh.  There are players on it.  And most of them are going to have to exceed expectations, maybe by a lot, in order for the Hoos to stop anyone.

Because of that, UVA faces an uphill fight to avoid the "showcase" game against Penn.  The NCAA tournament might actually be easier to make than the ACC one, especially with the Loyola win in the books.  With good reason, practically nobody thinks this year will see UVA back to elite status.  But if this is a rebuilding year, it looks like a much better one than the 2013 disaster, and this rebuild has a much better chance of clicking.

Monday, February 9, 2015

blip

At risk of blasting my own horn (oh hell, that's the whole point of this entire endeavor) I did something during the Duke game that's usually almost impossible to pull off: I pegged the game's turning point as it happened.  Most of the time you have to do that in retrospect, unless the game is really close and then suddenly it's not.  In this case UVA held a pretty safe lead before it happened, and a pretty safe lead after.  KenPom's win probability graph had UVA's chances moving from about 98% to 96%.  Who'd have thunk?

Well, me, when that tiny little knife in the pit of the stomach made its appearance on a Tyus Jones three-pointer shortly after a Justin Anderson miss on the same.  Anderson's shot was thisclose to going down; Jones hit nothing but net, and the result was a six-point swing.  No, it was more than six points - it was the entire spectrum of Duke's confidence.  Jones gave them their fortitude back, ten seconds after it was two inches from disappearing entirely.

As much as I'd like to move that number one from the loss column to the rankings column, at least we know what it takes to beat UVA these days: six-of-eight shooting on three pointers, and all of the last four.  After Anderson missed, that's what Duke did, en route to not missing a shot in the last four minutes of the game.  You know what?  Great.  Duplicate that formula and you've finally figured out the trick to beating Virginia Kentucky everyone up to and including the '92 Dream Team.

The rest of the week - no disrespect at all to the opponents involved - was surprisingly easy.  It's all relative, of course - it wasn't, like, Harvard-easy.  UNC and Louisville put up a fight, albeit not for 40 full minutes.  It's easier to do, of course, when one game is at home and the other is in one of the ACC less-intimidating atmospheres.  (Seriously, is there a team anywhere else, outside of Chapel Hill, where the ratio of powerhouse-ery to crowd atmosphere is so huge?)  Theory on this: these three teams are completely on another level athletically, above and beyond what UVA's gotten used to seeing the past month (or more) and it took a little time to get used to.  When they did, which was right about halftime of the UNC game, the game slowed down again.

I've been including the upcoming NC State game in the stretch of doom calculations, but if you believe the above theory, it might be more of a blowout than I've been assuming.  I mean, BeeJay Anya's a pretty good player, but once you've tried to score on Montrezl Harrell, can it be that much harder?  I still think it's a dangerous game.

That said, the chances are excellent that UVA loses just one game the rest of the way at the most, which should worry a league that all sits at least two losses behind.  Beating Duke would've been great and all, but there isn't a soul among us who wouldn't have taken two out of those last three, if offered beforehand.  And UVA has held double-digit leads in all three games.  Despite the loss, this was a test passed with flying colors so far; if they finish the final portion of it, another long and relatively relaxing stretch awaits.

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-- It's been a while since I wrote this, so it was of course bound to rear its ugly head in a huge way: We still can't have nice things.  Justin Anderson's fractured finger capped a very rough injury stretch (at least, I really hope that capped it) in which UVA lost its top scorer in basketball, top hitter in baseball, and top defenseman in lacrosse.  Already thin from the transfer loss of Greg Danseglio, the lacrosse team really could not afford losing Tanner Scales to an Achilles' heel, but it did anyway.  Joe McCarthy's back surgery leaves a gaping hole in the lineup.  And of course, something had to be up when Evan Nolte started the second half.

Weirdly, even in a game where Anderson got hurt, Marial Shayok only got four minutes.  I might automatically assume he and Nolte would pick up most of Anderson's minutes, if not for that stat.  It's still logical, but Tony's been tinkering with the back end of the lineup a bit and I wouldn't make any hard-and-fast guesses for NC State, let alone four weeks from now.  Good news is there's a reasonable chance Anderson is back for postseason play.

-- You have to love Syracuse, which could at any time have chosen to take a postseason sanction but chose to do it in the middle of a season that wasn't likely to land them in the NCAAs anyway.... and then throw a pity party for Rakeem Christmas's playoff dreams.  Does it suck that Christmas's Syracuse career ends without any tournaments of any kind?  Yes, but to avoid that, Syracuse might have had to feel a little more pain from the self-sanction.  So Christmas gets thrown to the wolves, and just for a bonus, gets to be used by Syracuse as the face of their passive-aggressive campaign against having to bear such a brutal punishment.  How cynical.

-- Sometimes the basketball gods are just.  Not when they put Anderson's finger in a splint, no, but take Darion Atkins.  Atkins dogged a Louisville player into a turnover just seconds after a defensive rebound, giving the Hoos the ball right back.... and then Atkins scored on the ensuing possession.  Feed the guy who made the play - I like it.

-- I was reminded again why I like Doris Burke.  75% of sideline reporters ask the stupidest %@#&ing questions, mostly: "describe your emotions."  Burke pinpointed a matchup she wanted to ask about - and made a good choice - and in doing so gave Tony Bennett an opportunity to sing the praises of a deserving player, which he proceeded to do.

-- Lacrosse starts the season the same way as last year: a one-goal win over Loyola.  Now that the season is underway, that would be a good time to write a season preview, yes?  This week.  Short version of the game: offense good, defense eh.

-- I put together the next round of ACC simulations, but that's gonna wait til Tuesday also.  So now here they are:


UVA is a frightening lock for the 1 seed; it'd take a mathematically unlikely face-fall to drop out of the top spot.  What's a bit more surprising is the tight grip Duke has on #2, and UNC on #5.  Neither have much of a schedule left, except each other.  KenPom likes GT a lot more than the standings show, though, and UNC also has to visit Miami; that, combined with Duke's higher pythag, accounts for a lot of the difference.  Fortunately, it makes sense; Duke owns the tiebreaker on everyone in the top 5 except for UNC, who they haven't played yet.  By virtue of being the only team to beat UVA while the rest of the contenders have all lost, they're in great shape.

This is a great year to show off the excellence of the tourney format; five great teams looking for four double-bye slots.  It might not matter early, because the first opponent will be a putz (either #12 or #13) and then you play the 4 seed anyway, but the extra game might de-freshen the legs a little as the tourney heads toward Sunday.

Me, I'd definitely welcome a Sunday rematch of last year's final.  Both teams would be motivated by recent losses to the other, and the chance to beat Duke two years in a row would spark whispery but unmistakeable changing-of-the-guard talk.  Not to be premature or anything.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

signstravaganza 2015

Between scaling back from a daily schedule, and the lackluster results out of the football team lately (and by extension, the recruiting class**), I'd forgive you if you thought you weren't getting this regular feature this year.  But you shall have it anyway.

That Mike London is able to put together a class at all is still something of a testament to his recruiting chops.  Rarely does a coach occupy a seat this hot for this long.  Who knows how 2016 will pan out?  Not well, is the likely answer, but there's always hope delusions.  UVA also got a shot of adrenaline at the end of the cycle by finally hiring the long-wished-for Chris Beatty, who brought a few friends with him.

This post, as ever, is comprised of standard features, so let's get at them after the asterisked disclaimer.

**This paragraph will serve as my plea for forgiveness.  Objective evaluation and unfiltered opinions have always been a goal of this blog.  Both are unreachable ideals, but worth striving for.  One thing that makes them unreachable is that it's a dick move to talk way down about the worth of a bunch of not-even-graduated high school kids who've just taken a big step toward living out their hopes and dreams.  At the same time, I couldn't ask anyone to take me seriously if every recruiting evaluation said, "yay team!"  I'll just have to risk giving offense - judiciously, though.

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ROSTER MANAGEMENT

This class was always going to be large; the initial assessment was that the only limit was the yearly limit of 25, or London's hot seat, or the coaches' imagination in figuring out how to stuff as many players as possible in the class.  They didn't quite get to 25; the final tally is 23, with two of them enrolling early.  It's unfortunate they couldn't.  The roster now has 85 scholarship players on it, meaning if there's any attrition at all (so, for example, if George Adeosun's knee is healed by Jesus), UVA will go into the next season undermanned.  Attrition is probably not done for the offseason, and even if not, the roster lists a few players who could've been turned down for a fifth season with no reservations.  Room definitely existed underneath the roster limits for another player or three.

There'll be only 15 graduating seniors after the upcoming season, which is a blessing - it means that if a new coach is in the office by next New Year's Day, he won't have to flail around just to keep his head above water in the numbers game.

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POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN

Quarterback - Nick Johns

Early assessment: "I won't be surprised if the coaches take one. I won't be surprised if they don't."  (From the big-picture post last March, linked above.)

They took one, and no complaints here at all because we'll carry five next year and that's about the ideal number to have.  (We'll definitely get deeper into the right number of players to have at a position, later on.)  The coaches zeroed in on their target very early in the game and landed him only a little bit later, and by most accounts he's a worthy candidate to start at a P5 school.  It's taken a long while, but I think it's fair to say the coaches are finally steadying up the quarterback position.  Either London has learned some lessons, or Steve Fairchild is providing valuable advice, or both.

Running back - Chris Sharp, Olamide Zacchaeus

Early assessment: "Two backs in the 2015 class would be a very sound investment."

So far, so good.  Neither of these two backs come with major-league credentials, but there's some good diversity of skills here - these two should complement each other well - and this position continues to be staffed at just the right levels.  Tailback is one of the most likely places to find quality sleepers, so I tend to lean optimistic on the position in almost all cases, as long as the depth is there and they're not all the same style of back.  I like how this looks going forward.

Wide receiver - Warren Craft, David Eldridge, Myles Robinson

Early assessment: "Let's say anywhere from 3-5 as a possibility. I'd prefer three or four..."

Hard to say I didn't get my wish here.  Perhaps my wish was a little overwrought; UVA tends to list three receivers as starters, and this is one position where you don't need to go more than three deep.  But we'll be going four deep this year, with 12 receivers on the roster.  (Assuming this is where Robinson slots - he's more the kind of undefined "athlete" that London loves to fill the team with, and could be a cornerback.)

UNC transfer T.J. Thorpe isn't listed here, because he's not technically in the recruiting class, but he'll be on the roster all the same.  Thorpe is also the best chance among the newcomers to add some electric flash to the 2015 outfit.  The signees were rated pretty low, without standout athleticism to make the raters look twice.

Add Dominique Terrell back to the list - he's a newcomer in a way, as last year's big-picture assessment assumed he'd be graduated by now - and you get the five receivers that I said would be too many.  On the plus side, it's not five all at once, which would've been a big mistake.  Three each in four different classes, until and unless this group of three gets broken up by putting one of them on the field.  That shouldn't happen, though.

Tight end - Richard Burney, Tanner Cowley

Early assessment: "It's a safe bet we'll take at least one, maybe two."

That was assuming Mario Nixon might ever be available to play, which he almost certainly won't.  Given that, two tight ends was an absolute necessity for this class, lest the position become uselessly thin.  Burney and Cowley aren't the least bit flashy (they're tight ends, what do you expect?) but they fill a huge need.

Offensive line - Ryan Bischoff, Grant Polk, R.J. Proctor

Early assessment: "Need-wise, the barest of bare-bones minimums here should be four. That's still not enough....I'll settle for five in the class - the undermanning of the depth chart just isn't going to be fixed in one year."

You're shitting me.

You've got to be shitting me.

Start this breakdown by reading the O-line section of last year's Signstravaganza, where UVA took two linemen.  Every word of it still applies.

The depth chart I have lists 17 offensive linemen.  That'd be enough to keep me happy, if George Adeosun didn't have an evil spirit residing his knee; if Jack English weren't desperation-moved to left tackle where he lined up as a 260-pound blindside protector; if Jay Whitmire's back doesn't have any more setbacks ever; if Jackson Matteo were actually on scholarship, if, if, if, if, if.

I thought we had four, but the coaches decided to move Eli Hanback to defensive tackle.  Granted, defensive tackle is also a thin position in need of a major shore-up, but this would've been much better accomplished by recruiting defensive tackles.  So now, we have taken five linemen in two years.

This is so far beyond stupid.  This is into blithering, drooling moron territory.  Simple math - 85 scholarships divided by 22 positions on the field - reveals you should start with 3.4 players per position, as a base assumption.  Five starting offensive linemen times 3.4 equals 17.  You should have 17.  The hell we have 17.  We can't even go three deep without counting walk-ons, ex-tight-ends, and injured guys.

London's philosophy - which you can even hear him state, if you watch the David Eldridge short video on the official site - is that you build a football team with guys who can run.  So he loads up on "athletes", thinking he's being so clever and Oregon-esque, forgetting that Oregon has taken a minimum of four O-linemen nearly every year (only one exception, in fact) going back since long before they were Oregon.

Like it's some big frickin' mystery the run game has failed to reach the top 90 each of the last three seasons, and has only gotten worse the more London's O-line recruits and philosophy permeate the roster.  London is screwing not only himself, but the next guy too.  At the position most heavily affected by injuries and unpredictable player development, London is committing felony negligence.

And by the way, this is not an attack on the actual signees, about whom the only complaint I have is that there aren't enough of them.

Defensive tackle - Eli Hanback, James Trucilla

Early assessment: "Signing at least one is a must...I'd rather see two and wouldn't exactly mind three."

London got to the requisite two by mugging Peter to pay Paul.  Hanback comes in as a complete unknown, because all his evaluations were as an offensive lineman.  Trucilla is an undersized but quick-twitchy three-tech with mostly MAC offers.  This will give UVA six defensive tackles, which I'd complain about except that Jon Tenuta usually has the team in a nickel defense and doesn't usually have two DTs on the field.  The position is probably at about the right depth.  I just wish it would come at the expense of the WR depth instead of the O-line.

Defensive end - Naji Abdullah, Gladimir Paul, Steven Wright

Early assessment: "I'd say 2-3 is the target, but Jon Tenuta's philosophy might muddy up the numbers a little."

One phrase you hear a lot of now is "in the mold of Max Valles."  Valles set the standard, more or less, for the pass-rushing linebacker that Tenuta wants, and yes, this is the defensive end section but the distinction now between DE and SLB is much less than on traditional defenses.  In this case, UVA has brought in one more traditional DE (Wright) and two "athlete" types.  This to go along with the several more "athlete" types signed in the past year or two.  There's probably an overdone glut at this point.

Abdullah and Wright are late, January additions to the class, as the DE position had to be remade pretty quickly after a couple unsurprising decommitments.  I don't think the losses of Brandon Wilson and Rasool Clemons were at all unforeseen by London and the staff, and they weren't slow in replacing them.

Linebacker - Eric Gallon, Dominic Sheppard, Jahvoni Simmons, C.J. Stalker

Early assessment: "This class does have to include, however, at least one prototype middle linebacker....I'd say a class of 2-4 would be in range, with three as the probable sweet spot."

You'll note the general lack of star power in this class.  Of the 23 recruits, 15 are low-three-stars or less in Rivals's system.  Only five are high-three-stars or higher.  And of those five, three are linebackers.  Looking only at this position, you'd think this was a top-15 class in the country.

Gallon is another late addition, and yes, London dropped the Max Valles comparison in his recruiting short.  The other three are regular linebackers all the way, and all of them highly, highly sought-after.  UVA probably would've been content with just Simmons and Stalker as their WLB and MLB candidates, but Chris Beatty brought some Signing Day excitement with him in the form of Sheppard, who is one of two former Wisconsin commits in the class.  Sheppard was loaded down with an offer list that looked more like one for a high-four-star guy than a unanimous three-star.  (I don't think they're all real, though.  I think in terms of where he actually could have committed, his list is a little more modest.)

The numbers for the position are a little fat - 11 scholarship players - but such an infusion of talent as this nullifies any complaint.

Defensive back - Kareem Gibson, T.J. Griffin, Juan Thornhill

Early assessment: "One more DB besides Thornhill is all I want, but in the business of predicting, 3-4 total seems like a more likely bet."

Amazingly, left to his own devices, London would've given us exactly that - one more DB besides Thornhill, unless Myles Robinson ends up at corner.  Griffin is another Beatty import, as well as a high school teammate of Jahvoni Simmons.  I don't mind too much about what that does to the numbers; seven cornerbacks is perfectly fine, as it's 3.5 deep, and it's misleading to think of having only two starting cornerbacks anyway given the proliferation of nickel packages.  You need three good ones.  Thornhill makes a good addition to the safety corps, which is carrying six players - also fine.  London used to be kind of drunk on defensive backs, but the position has been right-sized in recent years and smartly he didn't get excessive this year.

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Made-up traditions are a staple of Signstravaganza, and the usual array of lists is important as ever.

Top five stories of the year:

1. Linebackers.  I cannot help but be impressed at the haul.  Even more astounding is the difference between the star power at this position and the lack thereof everywhere else.

2. Chris Beatty.  Even bowl-less teams can have fun Signing Day surprises, and UVA made it happen by poaching Wisconsin's ace recruiter and then flipping two Badger commitments, one on Tuesday and one on the big day.  These had been rumored to be in the works, so not totally out of the blue, but still enjoyable.

3. Decommitments.  A record for the London era with four.  Two were mainly academic-related.  Rasool Clemons was always a longshot to qualify and the coaches had the unpleasant duty of flat-out telling Kareem McDonald he wasn't going to get in, either.  Two others outright decided to leave.  One had never visited UVA, the other left for a home-state school that was performing a hell of a lot better on the field.  These things happen, it's true - but you also have to wonder if the coaches, out of necessity, had been taking a few more moonshots with guys who were more borderline in the classroom than their targets of years past.

4. Offensive line.  Come on, man.

5. Low ratings and less competition.  Competition in the form of offers, that is.  As much as it's worth being reminded that star ratings don't always mean everything and there are lots of examples of star players who the scouting services had panned, it's also worth being reminded that they do tend to be pretty good predictors of future prowess.  Far from fighting and beating some of the big boys the way London did in 2011, or bringing in some huge headliners like in 2014, the class has only one player in anyone's Top Whatever list (Jahvoni Simmons) and a huge pile of guys who'd be called fliers in past recruiting classes.  In 24/7's composite list, Simmons comes in 150th in the country; the next-best guy is C.J. Stalker at 510th.

Five most likely to play as true freshmen:

1. C.J. Stalker
2. Jahvoni Simmons
3. Richard Burney
4. Chris Sharp
5. Tanner Cowley

All of these guys play positions - LB, TE, RB, that took huge hits from graduation and left behind a depth chart of entirely unproven players.  Henry Coley and Daquan Romero sucked up almost every snap on defense, leaving a vacuum at MLB and WLB.  Only Taquan Mizzell has any experience at RB, and TE is even thinner where Rob Burns is the only one to have made an appearance in a game.  Plus, Stalker is an early enrollee.

Five I'm most excited about:

1. C.J. Stalker
2. Jahvoni Simmons
3. Dominic Sheppard
4. Nick Johns
5. Olamide Zacchaeus

Linebackers linebackers linebackers.  I loved watching Coley and Romero, and the incoming group has a real chance to be worthy successors.  And I rarely let this list go without putting an RB on it somewhere.  Zacchaeus has some elusivity to him that gives him a large fun-to-watch potential.

Three sleepers:

1. Warren Craft
2. R.J. Proctor
3. Chris Sharp

To be on this list, you have to have been given the two-star of doom from at least one service, and man were there a lot of choices this year - ten, to be exact.  Craft is funny because Rivals and Scout think he's two-star material, and ESPN gave him four, with a glowing scout's take.  He's tall and athletic, and just as a fun bonus was once committed to VT on a basketball scholarship.  Proctor is a boom-or-bust prospect as a lineman, with really long arms and a huge frame.  Sharp was a very productive workhorse back in high school - not Kevin Parks level stuff, but he piled up yard all the same.

Five highest-rated:

1. Jahvoni Simmons
2. C.J. Stalker
3. Nick Johns
4. Juan Thornhill
5. Dominic Sheppard

Once based on star averages, but there's too much homogeneity here - lots of across-the-board three-stars.  So it's now based on 24/7's composite, except that I can't figure out how the hell their composite put Steven Wright above Sheppard when Sheppard rates higher on all but one system, so Sheppard it is.

Eat it, Shaney:

Jahvoni Simmons

Eat it, Randy:

Nick Johns
Dominic Sheppard

Eat it, Larry:

Jahvoni Simmons
Steven Wright.

The list of our recruits who spurned our friends in Blacksburg, College Park, and Chapel Hill, respectively.  No, I don't think we want to know how this looks the other way around.  This list, by the way, was huge in 2011.  Huge.

The ones that got away:

RB Jaason Lewis (Arizona State)
TE Chris Clark (UCLA)
OL Austin Clark (Virginia Tech)
OL Blake Camper (South Carolina)
OL Justin Skule (Vanderbilt)
LB Ricky DeBerry (Oklahoma)
DT Tim Settle (Virginia Tech)

Players who, at least at one point, looked like they had a realistic chance of ending up at UVA, and whose addition to the class would've made it noticeably better.  Settle, I had to debate on, because his transcript is going to take a couple years to sort out.  Chris Clark seemed to be really into UVA initially and likely would've given a longer look if our on-field results merited it.  Lewis was recruited by London for a long time, but overcoming his desire to go out-of-state was too big of a hurdle.

That'll do it for now.  Had there been such a thing as Signstravaganza 2008, I'd love to go back and compare.  That's the class that this one most resembles.  This one's larger, but the distribution of star-ratings is eerily similar.  That class produced a few really good players, even some NFLers, but the vast majority of it busted out and the top end was for the most part a major disappointment.  The stakes are higher for this class because it's that much bigger - it can't afford to have almost two-thirds of it be a complete waste like '08 was.

Friday, January 30, 2015

game preview: Duke


Date/Time: Saturday, January 31; 7:00

TV: ESPN

Record against the Blue Devils: 50-116

Last meeting: UVA 72, Duke 63; 3/16/14, Greensboro, NC; ACC championship

Last game: UVA 50, VT 47 (1/25); ND 77, Duke 73 (1/28)

KenPom:

Tempo:
UVA: 58.3 (#350)
Duke: 68.1 (#45)

Offense:
UVA: 117.8 (#5)
Duke: 117.4 (#6)

Defense:
UVA: 83.9 (#2)
Duke: 94.1 (#50)

Pythag:
UVA: .9801 (#2)
Duke: .9275 (#8)

Projected lineups:

Virginia:

PG: London Perrantes (5.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 4.4 apg)
SG: Malcolm Brogdon (13.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.7 apg)
SF: Justin Anderson (13.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.9 apg)
PF: Darion Atkins (7.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 0.6 apg)
PF: Anthony Gill (11.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 0.8 apg)

Duke:

PG: Tyus Jones (10.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 5.0 apg)
SG: Quinn Cook (14.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.8 apg)
SF: Justise Winslow (10.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.8 apg)
PF: Amile Jefferson (8.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.1 apg)
C: Jahlil Okafor (18.7 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.5 apg)

I haven't done a single one of these yet this year in light of scaling back the regular posting schedule, but how can I resist College GameDay?  This is gonna be fun.  UVA gets showcased for everyone who tunes into some college hoops on Saturday as a Super Bowl warmup, and they couldn't have picked a better opponent because pretty much everyone (who's otherwise neutral) will be hoping to see Duke get humbled.  UVA gets a lot of temporary fans on Saturday night.

This is game one of a four-game stretch of doom.  Most pundits are calling it three, but NC State is no pushover and that one's on the road.  ESPN is already using the "u" word not in terms of the season past, but the season future, so you already know what kind of hype is at stake over the next week.

Duke is having a rough go of it in the ACC, having lost to every non-crappy opponent they've faced, except for Louisville after busting out a surprise zone defense on Rick Pitino.  Their case for being #4 in the country is built mainly on three legitimate things: beating Wisconsin and Louisville on the road, and Jahlil Okafor.  These aren't to be sneezed at, but the Fightin' Coach K's have proven vulnerable, too, and UVA is a decided favorite here.

-- UVA on offense

The Hoos had a little trouble with the VT zone last weekend, so despite the fact that Duke is usually known for aggressive man-to-man defense, you can expect to see them break it out on Saturday.  I mean, it's been working, it certainly worked against Louisville, and it seems to be their best shot at reversing the trend of mediocre defense they've been lamenting this season.

With three freshmen in the starting lineup, it's probably not all that surprising that Duke's defense isn't elite.  Duke's defense possesses the fingerprints of a team whose perimeter defense is beaten off the dribble with some regularity: relatively high 2-point shooting percentage allowed and rather high free-throw shooting percentage allowed, while at the same time relatively few opponents' baskets are assisted.  Why include free-throw percentage allowed?  Teams with higher numbers there are likely to be fouling guards more than bigs.  All this points to a vulnerability to slashing guards - hence the switch to a zone defense, which compensates for that weakness.

A slasher is something that the UVA offense lacks.  The UVA ballhandlers aren't exactly bad at this, but there isn't that one elite player who can do anything on the dribble.  With Rasheed Sulaimon's dismissal from the team, chances are excellent that either Justin Anderson or Malcolm Brogdon - probably Brogdon - will spend a lot of time matched up against a smaller player, which should encourage that mid-range jumper that Brogdon is pretty proficient at shooting.

UVA's offensive rebounding prowess could pose a problem for Duke - not just in second-chance points, but foul trouble.  Grabbing an offensive board and going straight back up is a great way to draw a foul, and Duke is thin in the frontcourt following the early-season transfer of Semi Ojeleye.  Jahlil Okafor and Marshall Plumlee rotate at center with Plumlee being used mostly only to give Okafor a breather.  Amile Jefferson is the only other true big; when he's out of the game, Duke usually pairs Justise Winslow with Matt Jones as small forwards.  Okafor is an obvious freak of nature, one of the quickest big men you'll ever see, but also the only Duke big who matches up well with UVA's frontcourt.  Mike Tobey can score on Plumlee, Jefferson is too skinny to easily handle either Anthony Gill or Darion Atkins, and the remaining forwards are 6'6" or smaller.  And Okafor isn't a big-time shot-blocker - he's about average for his size, really.

Putting him in foul trouble spells bad news for Duke's frontcourt.  Putting any of them in foul trouble, really.  Gill is a bad mismatch for anyone who might guard him save Okafor, in which case Atkins should be able to go to work.  It might be tempting to start Tobey in order to force Duke to guard him with Okafor and let Gill take advantage of the resulting mismatch.

-- UVA on defense

Okafor is scary.  It's not for no reason he gets a lot of hype.  It's rare to see such a big guy move so well.  Okafor is 6'11", 270, and moves like he's 230.  He scores on about 2/3 of his shots, and his season low is 10 points, with eight 20-point games and seven double-doubles.  He's a top-notch offensive rebounder, and by the way that foul trouble thing we talked about earlier is rare, letting him play over 30 minutes a game.

Expect, then, a healthy dose of post-doubling when Okafor gets the ball.  UVA won't front him per se, but the pack-line footwork is still designed to force him to catch the ball somewhere where he doesn't want it, and to let the double come quickly.  Expect also a lot less post-doubling on anyone else, lest they find Okafor with an awful mismatch on him.

It's not a one-man show, though; it wouldn't be Duke if they didn't have a bunch of guys who could score.  Quinn Cook moved off the ball to take a more active shooting role and let Tyus Jones run the point.  Cook made 65 threes last year; a bit more than halfway through the season, he's at 53.  Jones and Winslow aren't hacks at the long ball, but with Sulaimon gone, Cook is the one really big distance threat.  And he's automatic from the stripe, missing only two of 44 free throws this year.

Jones, Winslow, and Jefferson are all perfectly capable scorers, too.  Jefferson is shooting .639 from the field, all from two; Jones and Winslow are rangy players who like Cook can score from a lot of different places.  But that's about where the good news ends for Duke.  The loss of Sulaimon costs the Blue Devils their most versatile player and only reliable bench scorer.  Matt Jones isn't used to shouldering any scoring load, Marshall Plumlee is a body that Duke uses to give Okafor a rest, and Greyson Allen doesn't appear to yet have the full confidence of Coach K.  When Tyus Jones would go out of the game, it was Sulaimon, not the former point guard Cook, who would take over at the point; Duke's choice now is to either hand it back to Cook or make Jones play all 40 minutes.  The former detracts from Cook's scoring focus and the latter is a huge risk and not sustainable.

Sulaimon provided most of his minutes at the three, though, which leaves Duke with another choice: lean more heavily on Winslow or Matt Jones.  Leaning on Winslow takes away his availability at the four, and leaning on Jones risks letting Justin Anderson run wild.  Sulaimon's flexibility gave Coach K a lot of options; his loss is a bigger depth hit than one man normally is.

-- Outlook

Make no mistake, this is a tough game, one of the season's hardest.  My guess is that Duke will lean as hard as they can on their starters in the absence of Sulaimon to back them up, because the more they go to the bench the more they play into the hands of the deeper Hoos.  Their starters can, mostly, match up well with UVA's, and they probably have an advantage at most positions.

But that's why UVA perfects a system, and that system has beaten Duke two years running.  And Duke's margin for error is much smaller than UVA's.  Okafor has had nagging knee twinges in more than one ACC game, and Duke can't afford to have a bad game from any of their starters or have prolonged scoring droughts, because their defense hasn't been good enough to hold off opposing runs.  And playing in what's sure to be a fired-up environment won't help matters.  If UVA's offense is clicking, it's over.  Duke could zone UVA into oblivion, or shoot hot from three, or see one of their stars go off on a big-night bender, and put an end to UVA's win streak in a hurry.  Chances are, though, that to win they'll simply need to play a more complete and balanced game - with fewer players - than they have for most of the season.

Final score: UVA 71, Duke 65

Monday, January 26, 2015

rock fights

So to be completely frank, if this terrific win streak must come to an end at some point, I'd prefer just about anywhere but Blacksburg.  So it was with a little trepidation that I watched the Hokies take a ten-point lead in front of a Cassell Coliseum crowd that wasn't precisely packed to the gills, but was a lot fuller and louder than it's been for most of the season.

This is normally the point where you'd think "but that didn't last for long," but truth is it did.  Various reports of the game call it a rally.  Nothing of the sort happened.  A rally implies a flurry of activity, a swift change in fortunes.  The Hoos just stopped letting VT score, is all.  VT stopped hitting shots they'd been hitting, they went back to giving the ball away a few times (like they'd done in the first half) and a glacial eight minutes after VT was up ten, the lead finally disappeared completely.  There was no Cavalanche, just a big, 11-minute stop on defense and a fun play or two along the way.

It illustrates a philosophy of Tony's completely: you better play defense if you hope to come back from a deficit.  Offense will happen if you don't panic, but you sure as hell ain't closing that gap if the other guys keep scoring.

So the march continues.  One imagines it'll stop in the next couple weeks.  Four very difficult matchups present themselves: Duke and Louisville roll into town, and the Hoos make two trips to the Triangle for UNC and NC State.  KenPom says the UNC game is the toughest left on the schedule, being as it's on the road; I think it's the two home games that are the toughest matchups on paper, but the Hoos have been playing much better at home of late than on the road.  Georgia Tech was mercilessly ground into powder because UVA had a home crowd behind them and the Jackets are pitiful shooters from outside four feet.

No league has as many legitimate national title contenders as the ACC, and UVA's schedule is the streakiest of any of them, so it might be fair to say these next couple weeks will be the longest, toughest stretch faced by any of the country's best teams.  Even in the Big 12, which is looking a little like the ACC used to, 15 years ago.  ESPN's Dana O'Neil did a rather awkwardly-premised article that boils down to "ACC and Big 12 teams will beat each other up and most of the rest of the country will coast."**   If that goose egg comes out the other end unscathed, the hype machine is going all the way to 11.

**I thoroughly love the characterization of UVA as a "veteran team that actually likes games to be rock fights."  That's a good identity.  All we need now is a recruit who's been called "Psycho T Junior" and a Kiwi kid who thinks it's rugby.  Where can we find guys like that, I wonder.

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-- Malcolm Brogdon had a fantastic little layup against Georgia Tech where he decided on a change of plan midair.  It was a damn familiar-looking play:



Even more similar in motion, in fact.  Except for the finish.

(Yes, I'm gonna let you stew on it if you're drawing a blank on the bottom play.)

-- Buzz Williams is amusingly demonstrative, yes, but as much as he was on the case of the refs, I'm wondering if he realizes offensive fouls do exist in the rulebook.

-- Buzz is likely going to turn VT into a not-laughingstock, maybe even do what Seth Greenberg only ever did once, and get them to the tourney.  He might not even leave for so-called greener pastures; Whit Babcock appears to actually mind being a basketball backwater, and will give him an ACC contract with an ACC budget for assistants and upgrade his buildings to ACC-quality facilities.  Even seeing that is worth it, because of the gift of Marial Shayok, who looks like the future of UVA ball.  He's got the scoring versatility that sometimes takes years to develop.

-- Speaking of developed scoring ability, man it would've been cool if Darion Atkins hadn't had shin splints that set his development back light years.  The guy wearing #5 now for UVA is the guy that Tony Bennett and Mike Brey fought a pitched recruiting battle over, back in 2010.  There are some faint similarities to Mike Scott showing through, the way he likes to operate on offense in a range ring around the net, the way he sometimes says, "ok, you want me to shoot this, I'll shoot it," and knocks it right down.  Senior year has been incredibly good to Atkins, there's no doubt about it.

-- GameDay notwithstanding, I'd rather play Duke this Wednesday, all things considered.  Coming off an emotional win and heading on the road, from an intangibles perspective there are few riper upsets than Notre Dame over Duke this week.  I think they'll get a cold-water reality check in South Bend, and I'd rather be the team giving it to them than the team right after.

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-- North Carolina and Wake Forest are charter members of the ACC, and have shared a conference since 1936 when Wake joined the Southern Conference.  It's about an hour and a half drive between the two schools.  They first met in football in 1888 and have played 105 games against each other.  That meeting in 1888 was the first college football game in the state of North Carolina.  So it makes perfect sense that they'd want to play each other more than once every goddam seven years.  Nice college football world you've delivered us, O oligarchs of the sport.  Throw bread and circuses at the drooling masses in the form of a playoff thing, and meantime make sure you set everything else up to make the least sense possible.

Of course, I don't gripe without offering a solution (much) and I've already put forth a great idea to fix the problem.  The best idea.

-- It was interesting to read about WR transfer T.J. Thorpe in this Jeff White article; coming to UVA was already on his mind (and leaving UNC was already decided) even as he was catching the game-winning touchdown against in October.  That kind of thing is probably more common than is ever reported, especially in basketball, but it's rarely admitted.

-- Lacrosse season is here sooner than you think, so it's a good time to loosen up for it by starting with opinionz on the newest rule changes:

* Faceoff rule changes: They'll be just about transparent to the vast majority of everyone watching the game.  Former FOGO guys might get interviewed by Inside Lacrosse or something, and air their gripes or praises, but nobody else will see a difference.  Cleaning up faceoff play is generally always welcome, but most of the time when a faceoff violation is called, nobody ever sees what happened anyway.  This won't change anything.

* Timeout changes: If the ball is to be restarted from inside the field of play, such as on an offside call, only the team with the ball can call timeout.  Nobody really was complaining about that, but it's a small positive tweak nonetheless.

* Phase-in of a requirement to have a 30-second shot clock displayed for when stall warnings are given out; previously, the refs kept the time themselves and the players were left to guess.  I emphatically don't want a shot clock in lacrosse, but "some schools can't afford them" was always one of the lamest arguments against them.  Spend a couple hundred dollars, man.  Not having the clock on the field was like having basketball's block-charge arc in the rulebook but not on the court, and the same bullshit poverty reason was given for not painting them on.  This is both a positive step for the rules as they're written now, and a huge negative step in that it smells strongly of a precursor to having the full-time shot clock instituted for good.

* You can now land in the crease after scoring, provided you didn't leave your feet before you shot.  Fine, good, dandy, because invariably you'd see about three to five perfectly good goals a year called back for that, and they shouldn't be.  Good compromise between not letting people just launch themselves and not forcing them to make like the Flying Wallendas around the crease.

* Addition of an over-and-back rule.  Used to be they'd either require you to go through the clearing clock again, or put on a stall warning if you were just being stubborn about sitting on the ball.  Now you lose the ball right away, like in basketball, and this is suddenly a really dangerous thing to do because it's a quick restart and the ball is already in your defensive half with a wide-open field to play with.

* Last year for these jerseys, because in 2016 your numbers will have to contrast.  Never liked those.

-- With a big basketball game this Saturday and lacrosse and baseball fast approaching, I feel a few midweek posts coming on.

Monday, January 19, 2015

recruiting reform

Basketball is settling into a calm-before-the-storm stretch of the season, with four of the ACC's worst teams on the slate before a three-game Season-Defining Stretch that's looking more like a tough four-game run when you tack on a trip to Raleigh to the end of it.  Efficiently grinding a couple bad teams into the floor is fun in its own not-stressful way, but it makes for a minimum of writeable moments.  Instead, I think I'll react to some of the news trickling out of the NCAA's decision-making echelons.

Specifically, the fact that a football early signing period appears to be all but done at this point.  This "formally recommended" thing is a formality; the discussions have all taken place by now and they're almost dead certain to do it.  Stupid.  This is happening for two reasons: one, the NCAA has the creativity of earthworms and thinks it has only one tool in the box.  And two, coaches are eager to do anything they can to exert more control over the process, which is another way of saying take some control out of the hands of the recruits.

Early signing periods - championed by some because they would supposedly let recruits stop being bombarded with mail and social media messages - do a great job of taking control out of their hands instead.  A recruit would no longer be able to:

-- Switch schools because the head coach got fired
-- Switch schools because he doesn't like the new head coach
-- Switch schools because a favorite assistant landed a promotion elsewhere (Chris Beatty being the perfect example here)
-- Switch schools because a school he wanted an offer from, hired a new head coach willing to give him one
-- Switch schools because he blew up his senior year

The one saving grace is the December 16 date.  The ACC wanted August 1, which was beyond stupid.  The SEC wanted the Monday after Thanksgiving, which still doesn't help.  Most coaches who'll be fired, are fired before December 16, so at least that part of carousel season won't affect recruits.  I always go back to the story of Roy Roundtree, though.  Roundtree spent a year openly pining for an offer from Michigan and not getting one.  He committed to Purdue when it looked like he'd never get the Michigan offer.  When Lloyd Carr retired and Rich Rodriguez was hired, Rodriguez decided that Roundtree was a terrific fit in his offense and flipped Roundtree in February.  Roundtree would never have gotten his dream-school offer if an early signing period had existed.

Oh, I suppose you could say that Roundtree shouldn't sign early, then.  Human beings at that age have brain chemistry that prevents them foreseeing that driving 110 miles an hour is going to end with their car wrapped around a tree, but they should foresee that a coach will retire and the new one will give them an offer.  Right.  Here is the conversation that every football coach will have with all their committed players: "Sign early or you're not committed and we'll recruit around you."  It's that control thing.  No recruit is going to risk their spot in the class by not signing early - and thus, as in basketball, the "early signing period" will become "the signing period."  How much football recruiting goes on between December and February?  Tons.  How much basketball recruiting goes on between the early period and the regular period?  Zip.

Let's say you need to mount a picture to your wall with a couple screws.  That represents the problem of recruiting reform.  The NCAA has decided to use a baseball bat to pound the screws in.  Good choice of tool.  Maybe the picture can cover up the huge new holes in the drywall.  I have some better ideas.  All of them should be implemented yesterday.

Letters of intent

Ah, the LOI.  Occasionally maligned, and not without reason: the LOI binds the player to the school, but is much less binding on the school itself.  As Les Miles has proven, you can sign an LOI and still show up on campus in the fall and be told you're not on the team right now because oops we oversigned.  (Asshole.)  You'll need to move out of that dorm room.  See you in January.

There need to be some fixes to this thing, first and foremost.  It's a contract, basically, and it doesn't always work.

-- Fortunately, the Power 5 conferences have just passed mandatory four-year scholarships.  Signing the LOI in February should also require that those scholarships begin in the school's next academic semester.

-- And since we're going to be stuck with this early signing period, there should also be some changes to the early-signed LOIs: specifically, the recruit should get to specify an assistant coach, who, along with the head coach, is required to still be employed by the school on the regular NLOI day.  If either leave or are fired, the LOI is dissolved and the player has the option to look around.  He can, of course, stick with it and sign the regular LOI in February.

I'd offer some fixes that help the schools, too, but they're not necessary - the LOI is so airtight and binding on the player that there's a real good reason the coaches are drooling at the idea of getting their recruits tied up with them as early as possible.

Centralize the process

One supposed advantage of an early signing period is it would save recruits the hassle of dealing with a flood of communication when they're already committed.  Well, for a month and a half, I guess, with this solution.  But this is exactly what I mean by using a baseball bat to pound a nail.  Sure, if a recruit knows where he's going in June and doesn't want to deal with the process after that, it makes sense for him to be able to shut it down entirely.

So set up an NCAA clearinghouse to keep track of all these verbal commitments.  Allow a recruit, starting the day the signing period ends during his junior year, to register a verbal commitment with the clearinghouse.  Doing so then means the school he's committed to can have unlimited contact with him, and other schools none at all.  No letters, no emails, no Facebook or Twitter shout-outs, nothing, unless they can show it was initiated by the recruit (which he'd be allowed to do.)  They can visit on the high school campus, and that'd be the extent of what they can do (it'd be hard to prevent contact at the high school, because there's no reason coaches shouldn't be able to recruit other players on the team.)

Illegal contact would be a secondary violation; repeated contact a major one.  The NCAA would have to rely on the player to report it, but that's fine; the idea is to prevent the player from being harassed, and if he doesn't really mind, what can you really do?  You'd have to think coaches would really like this too.  They'd have theoretical peace of mind, knowing that there isn't some annoying slimy weasel trying to get in the good graces of their recruits.

And of course, registering a verbal commitment would be totally rescindable.  By the player.  Not the school.

Written offers

The NCAA forbids written offers until after September 1 of the player's senior year.  This had the commendable goal of trying to stem the tide of earlier and earlier recruiting, but predictably was a huge failure.  The old date was August 1 of junior year.  Somewhere in the middle would be best - like, the same date mentioned above for registering a commitment.  I'm all about trying to keep recruiting out of middle school, but it's probably best not to have players not truly knowing where they stand.  Sometimes an offer isn't really an offer.

Better would be for offers to be able to be sent out February of junior year, and requiring the school to make good on them once sent.  Formalize the language so that it's the same for every school, or rather, write a special legalistic paragraph that must be included.  That paragraph would say something to the effect of this is a formal NCAA-approved offer of grant-in-aid for the period 2015 to 2019 to play football at University of Whatever contingent on you being academically eligible and not being a shithead and getting arrested bla bla bla and would mark the letter as official and binding on the school, if the player accepts.  The recruit wouldn't be allowed to formalize a commitment with the clearinghouse without this letter in hand, but schools wouldn't be able to say "well we're offering you but we want to see you at camp or we want to see how this other guy shakes out first" or whatever.

And of course, once sent, a written offer wouldn't be rescindable unless a guy got arrested or something.

Official visits

This is another thing that's passed the NCAA by while they whistle in the dark.  These can't be taken until senior year begins; ostensibly, that's again to keep recruiting from starting too soon, but the reality of the thing is that the further south a school is, the more likely they are to fight to keep the status quo.  Southern schools, SEC ones in particular, want these visits to happen while it's cold and nasty up north and nice and pleasant down south.  Should they happen while it's nice and pleasant up north and disgustingly hot and humid down south, it might be slightly detrimental to SEC hegemony.

But it makes no damn sense to force a recruit to spend all his own money during the peak recruiting season.  Official visits are generally impractical in the fall because the recruits are busy playing football on the weekends.  Duh.  So they can't happen in the summer, don't happen in the fall, and as a result many recruits never even take one.  Extremely rare is the recruit that takes his limit of five.  Small wonder Mike London likes to line everyone up in January for one big official visit extravaganza.  Besides the fact that it does wonders for convincing a few remaining uncommitted recruits, it's just plain practical - and damn near required.

Let's face it: there's no reason not to have them in the summer.  And the limits need to be changed.  Instead of limiting the recruit, limit the schools.  Let the recruit take as many as he's offered.  I'm not real worried about abuse of that system; rare would be the player who just spends every weekend all summer on official visits.  Give the schools an allotment of, oh, say, 80 or 100 to hand out, and let them spend them as they please, as long as the recruit has finished the equivalent of five semesters of high school and, again, it's after the previous signing period is over.  Let them pay for kids to come to camp weekend if they choose.  And for players who've registered their verbal commitment, one free official that doesn't count against the school's limits.

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I don't think this quite addresses everything, because recruiting is still a little rough around the edges when it comes to trying to deal with academically iffy students, and I don't have any good ideas about that.  Obviously there's also the issue of bagmen to deal with, but I think a future post may have some things to work on that.  And the one really big question is: how to keep recruiting from working its way into freshman year?  Football is a bit self-limiting there, because most coaches are pretty versed in the ways of physical development of high schoolers, and there aren't a whole lot of them that look ready to go at age 15.  But still, if there are any measures that would actually work, I'd be all about them - it's just that everything the NCAA has tried has failed and I don't have any better suggestions except to say that formalizing the process into a clear and obvious one-year cycle might help.

I do think that an early signing period will accelerate the forward-creep quite a bit.  Coaches do a lot of their head-start work in December and January when they're not coaching a team and most of their class is sewn up.  They're dealing with not just juniors, but sophomores and even the occasional freshman.  But they can't zero in on the younger kids while the seniors are still technically not locked down yet and there's still work to do on that class.  Take away all that work they have to do on the senior class and they get a lot of time freed up for future classes.  So the NCAA is really not helping itself here.

But hopefully, this is something like 90% comprehensive here.  We've imposed some order on a chaotic process - sure to be appreciated by the coaches, even if most of what we've done here is to make the process more recruit-friendly.

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This doesn't take into account anything that's happened Monday or Tuesday, because that's for next week.  But here's the latest iteration of the ACC season sims:


At this juncture, KenPom is essentially guaranteeing a #1 seed.  And leaping into the driver's seat for 2nd place: UNC, which is rounding into form somewhat at the exact same time Duke took a couple helpful losses.  Personally I'm holding off on getting too excited until after the four-game stretch of doom, and if we come out of that in good shape, then......